How I am bringing the final frontier down to earth
Jane Hanks talks to Jean Baptiste Desbois, who has set himself a mission to make outer space easily accessible to everyone who visits the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse
Space holds a deep fascination for many people – even though it is likely to remain a frontier too far for most of us.
But, it is not as far away as you may think – and one man has made it his mission to bring the cosmos close to home.
The director general of the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, Jean Baptiste Desbois, says he wants to make the mysteries of space accessible to everyone. He said he loves to see the eyes of the public shine when they discover how amazing space really is.
“My aim is to share this human adventure,” he says. “Mankind has always wanted to explore new boundaries. First we climbed mountains and crossed oceans. Now we are exploring space.
“You don’t need to be an engineer or a scientist to come here. You don’t need to understand the works of Einstein or Stephen Hawking – but come with a sense of curiosity and there is a great deal to discover.
“Parents often come for their children but find it just as interesting as they do.”
Mr Desbois says the centre aims to be an interface between a subject that can be extremely complex and the general public by explaining complicated ideas in simple words and actions:
“You can see images of the sun on the internet but when visitors look at the eruptions on its surface as they are happening through our telescope for real we hear them go: ‘Wow, that’s incredible’.
“Many of our activities are interactive. You can understand and feel why astronauts bound around on the moon like mountain goats after having a go on the Moon Runner where you experience what it is like to walk when you are six times lighter.”
On September 30 (just after this Connexion edition goes on sale), visitors can witness live the end of the ambitious 12-year Rosetta Mission when the spacecraft is set to make a controlled descent to the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the comet it has been following, to join its lander Philae. Once the probe reaches the surface, communications will cease and its operation will end.
The Cité will also coordinate French events for the United Nations World Space Week, which takes place each year, from October 4-10 and which commemorates two events – the launch of the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, and the October 10, 1967, start of the Outer Space Treaty – which established that exploration should be for the benefit of all mankind and that no country can claim sovereignty to any part of it.
Sometime between October 19 and 21, you can go to the Cité de l’Espace to watch the European Space Agency’s module, Schiaparelli land on Mars. October 20 sees the opening of a new exhibition, Astronautes, and from November 15 there will be live coverage of French astronaut Thomas Pesquet’s mission on the International Space Station.
Next September (2017), there will be an exceptional opportunity to meet actual astronauts when they hold their 30th Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers. In total, 100 astronauts from all over the world will gather for a conference but there will also be events open to the public.
The Cité de l’Espace is based in the European Space capital, Toulouse, which together with the Midi-Pyrénées region employs nearly 12,000 workers in the space industry – which represents 25% of Europe’s space-related jobs both in research and manufacture. Europe’s version of Nasa, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) is in the city.
Since it opened in 1997, more than five million visitors have walked through the doors of the Cité de l’Espace. Nearly 300,000 went last year. In 2012, the venue was totally renovated.
Visitors can enter an exact replica of a real spaceship, watch the sky through a telescope, learn about all aspects of space via multimedia experiences and watch live transmissions of events such as the movements of the Rosetta space probe.
Mr Desbois says: “If you arrive in the morning you can first walk round the permanent exhibition which tries to answer questions about why we go into space and what discoveries are being made and explains the solar system and the universe.
“You might go on to look at the temporary exhibition which will be about astronauts and their daily life from the autumn onwards. You can eat here and then in the afternoon go into the gardens where there is the life-size model of Ariane, the Planetarium, the Imax cinema, you can sit in a Soyuz capsule, look at the sky through a powerful telescope and visit the children’s area where a host will help younger visitors fire a water rocket.”
Events when the public are invited to watch real space activities live are very popular: “About 2,000 people came to see the eclipse of the sun in 2015 and 6,000 came to watch the probe Philae land on comet Chury in November 2014, when experts were on hand to explain what was happening.”
Mr Desbois says you also learn what space has to teach us about our life on Earth: “How far up do you think the International Space Station is?
“It is only 400km away, which is less than the distance from Toulouse to Paris. That’s not far but already people have to live there in extreme conditions, with little gravity, not enough oxygen and huge highs and lows in temperature.
“It shows that the atmosphere which protects our globe is a very thin layer and makes us understand how precious it is and ask questions about the environment.
“We say that Space starts 100km up. It is very, very close.
“You can see views of the earth that astronauts see from the Space Station. It looks amazing, it is beautiful, but fragile.”
Walking on the moon, right here
Some of the activities on offer at Cité de l’Espace
Here, visitors to the Cité de l’Espace can get an idea of what it is like to be in space by having a go on different simulators. There is a Moon Runner, where you feel what it is like to walk when you weigh six times less; as well as a rotating chair which astronauts use to prepare for the disruption to the way in which your inner ear performs and which can lead to so-called ‘space sickness’.
Astronaut exhibition (starts October 20)
The exhibition focuses on the daily lives of astronauts carrying out ordinary, everyday tasks and routines in the extraordinary
conditions of the International Space Station,
Visitors can ‘tour’ the space station and visit key areas, including the laboratory, galley and sleeping quarters. They can also take part in activities to get an idea of what life on board is like – from brushing teeth to discovering
medical issues such as the loss of bone and muscle mass in a weightless environment.
Aude Lesty, who is in charge of the
exhibition, says: “We have chosen to pinpoint parts of their daily lives to highlight unusual aspects, and be very open about subjects like toilets and hygiene.”
Visitors can enter an area created to be a launch area and can play at being a space engineer where you have to fulfil certain missions. You learn how a rocket and satellites are prepared for countdown and you can watch films of different launches that have taken place across the world.
Earth from Space
Visitors will see what the Earth looks like from outer space and learn the role of satellites and how their view of earth and the information they relay helps us in our everyday life.
A meteorologist from national forecaster Météo France is on hand to explain how weather forecasts are made from satellite
information. There is even a mock TV studio where you can record yourself presenting the weather. There is also a lift up into space – where you pass through the different levels of our atmosphere and see how they differ.
The solar system
This explains how our knowledge of the solar system is constantly evolving with frequent new discoveries. Scientists have discovered several new solar systems with more than 1,700 planets out there.
On show is a 163g fragment of basalt which was brought back from the moon by the Apollo 15 mission and which was given to the Cité de l’Espace by Nasa. There is also a
meteorite from Mars that landed in the Sahara and the biggest meteorite found in France – which weighs 625kg.
The Cité de l’Espace is the only place in the world which has a Soyuz capsule which you can sit in and feel how small and cramped it is for astronauts when they are hurtling into space.
A life-size model of the Ariane 5 rocket which is 53m tall stands in the grounds. It is shown ready for lift off standing on its launch pad.
There is a special area for six to 12-year-olds where they can experience being an astronomer, an engineer and an astronaut. There is also a space-themed playground where as well as a rocket toboggan and space station to climb into there is also the chance to launch a water rocket with the help of a member of staff.
Observatory, Planetarium, Terradome and Imax 5.2
There are three different shows in the 3D planetarium, a quiz in the Terradome to discover extreme forms of life on earth and a
telescope in the observatory where, weather conditions permitting, you can look at the activity on the sun and craters on the moon.
A 3D film projected on a huge 400m² screen immerses you into life in space with film from actual space missions which make you feel as though you are there. You see astronauts working outside the space station and as they reach out to grab a floating tool you feel they are about to touch you.
Low season: September 1-June 30, except school holidays: Adult €21, young person 16-18yrs plus students €18.50, child 5-15yrs: €15.50.
High season and school holidays October 20-November 11, December 17-January 2, 2017: Adult €24, young person 16-18yrs plus students €21.50, child 5-15 yrs: €17.50.
Open: 10.00-17.00 Tuesday-Friday and 10.00-18.00 on weekends and school holidays. Closed on most Mondays and some weekends.
For further details: www.cite-espace.com
Ariane and de Gaulle put France into orbit
FRANCE’S 10th astronaut is making his final preparations to go into space. Thomas Pesquet, 38, will take off from Baïkonour in Kazakhstan on November 15 on board a Soyuz capsule headed for the International Space Station for a six-month mission.
France has always been in the forefront of space exploration. It is the world’s second largest investor in space after the US.
Figures show that €30 per person per year was devoted to the civil space sector in 2014. In the US, the amount was €46, €16 in Germany and €6 in the UK.
Former President Charles de Gaulle established that space would be a priority for France. He saw the importance of space exploration and created the CNES in 1961, which developed the Diamant rocket which was the first expendable launch system and satellite launcher not built by either the US or USSR. It was used to put the first French satellite, Astérix, into orbit on November 26, 1965.
The success of the programme allowed France to become the third most important country in terms of space exploration.
It soon became evident that space projects should be developed on a European basis and France initiated the creation of the European Space Agency in 1973, made up of 10 countries. It now has 22 members.
The Ariane rockets were then developed on a European level but the company, Arianespace, which is responsible for marketing the use of the launchers is French and the launch pad is in French Guiana.
Arianespace is the world’s leading satellite launch company and so far this year it has put 10 satellites into space.
The last was in August, when two satellites, both for US-based operator Intelsat, were put into orbit. They were the IS-33e which is designed to meet broadband demand for both industry, aircraft and telecoms in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia and the IS-36 which will cover sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Since Ariane operations began in 1979 there have been more than 220 flights.
The Ariane 5 is the most recent model and can carry heavy payloads and take two satellites into space at a time. It has performed more than 70 missions since it was put into service in 1999.
A new Ariane 6 is scheduled for 2020 which will have two versions, one intended for government and scientific missions and one for commercial dual-satellite launches.
The company also uses the Soyuz Russian spacecraft which can be used for medium loads and Vega, which is designed to carry smaller satellites and has been jointly developed by the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
Arianespace sends all three launchers into space from its spaceport in French Guiana, which is the world’s most modern launch base. Its position near the equator reduces the energy required to send a vehicle into orbit and so reduces costs.
French policy is that investment in Space is not a luxury but a necessity as information from satellites is increasingly vital.